By Bishop Hovakim Manukyan
LONDON – Recently, the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah published an article in which it calls Turkey a “land of diversity” thanks to the six featured churches that have been “protected” by the Turkish Ministry of Culture (see “Land of Diversity: 6 Most Beautiful Christian Sites in Turkey,” by Argun Konuk, Daily Sabah, April 2, 2021). While everyone is grateful whenever cultural heritage is preserved and protected by a state, the Daily Sabah article tells a small part of the story of the thousands of churches – Byzantine, Armenian, Greek, Georgian, Syriac – that have existed in Anatolia (Western Armenia), often times for centuries, and their fates under the modern Republic of Turkey, established in 1923.
This brief response addresses the histories of only a handful of Armenian churches in the Republic of Turkey with the goals of: encouraging the press (both in Turkey and beyond) to do a better job of covering these topics; drawing attention to the long-term, intentional erasure of Armenian history in the Republic of Turkey; helping individuals (in Turkey and beyond) to see the destruction and neglect of Armenian cultural heritage as part of a serious problem related to the creation of nationalist narratives in Turkey that exclude the existence of indigenous Christian populations, thereby depriving individuals living in Turkey of truly knowing the histories of the lands in which they live and, thus, of their own cultural inheritance.
Most of the properties formerly belonging to Armenians were confiscated by the Turkish government and turned into military posts, hospitals, schools and prisons in the aftermath of WWI and the Armenian Genocide. The legal justification for the seizures was the law of Emval-i Metruke (Law of Abandoned Properties), which legalized the confiscation of Armenian property if the owner did not return. Still, some individuals (including some Turkish citizens) believe that the Treaty of Lausanne stipulates that the government of the Republic of Turkey preserve the heritage of its minority populations.
In a 1974 report, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimated that after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, 913 Armenian historical monuments were still in existence in Turkey, with 464 completely destroyed or vanished, 252 in ruins, and 197 in need of immediate repair. UNESCO recently researched and authored a report uniquely on the heritage of Ani and its environs in 2015. In 2016, the archaeological site of Ani was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Thanks to the interventions of UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund and the Turkish Ministry of Culture, recently some important preservation work has been completed on Armenian monuments in and around Ani (See https://www.wmf.org/publication/ani-context-workshop). We see these efforts as a step in the right direction, but they are not enough. There is much work to be done. Much history to be remembered. And many sites of distinct artistic, cultural and religious significance to be shown the respect they deserve, as part of the fabric of humanity.